Combining a love of drawing and printing, Charlotte Farmer’s screenprints draw you in with their vibrant colour palettes and sense of humour. We were excited to catch up with the Bath–based artist and delve further into her signature style to discover the wonderful world behind her compositions...
Hi Charlotte, it’s lovely to come and visit you. Thank you for having us! Let’s go back to basics, how were you introduced to printmaking? What was it about that process that drew you in?
How far back do we go! You do your foundation course and you try all the different things, but there wasn’t screenprinting on my art foundation but as soon as I went up to the top floor, which is where they had the print presses, it was the smell of the etching studio – I just loved it straight away. I started with linocuts and drypoint (that’s why my mum thinks all my work is black and white!) After that, I started an Art and English joint course, and as soon as we started doing screenprinting I thought forget the English, I’m going to drop that and do the fine art degree.
"When you are a printmaker, it’s so annoying when you go to galleries and there are no prints – it feels difficult to find other printers to be inspired by."
Does art or creativity run in the family? Do you come from a family of artists?
I think my grandad, who I never met, my mum has got some of the paintings he did. My Dad writes poetry, I remember hearing him read a poem he’d written at my Grandma’s funeral and I was really surprised at how good it was. But, otherwise not really – I’m the first. Everyone else in my family have sensible jobs like being nurses or accountants.
Who inspires you artist wise?
When you are a printmaker, it’s so annoying when you go to galleries and there are no prints – it feels difficult to find other printers to be inspired by. I did a project on Andy Warhol for my art A–level, so that’s where I first heard of screenprinting. I think it would have been really amazing to have been printing in The Factory with the Velvet Underground playing in the background. I also really like David Hockney’s early prints, especially his Rake’s Progress etchings. They’re some of my favourites.
A few years ago when I was doing my MA, I went to New York and there was an exhibition there by an artist called Marcel Dzama. His work is weird, at first it looks a bit like children’s book illustrations from the 1950s, then you look a bit closer and notice the guns. You’ve got no idea what’s really going on so you make up narratives to go with the image. It’s this storytelling part of his work that I find really interesting. I’ve got a couple of his books and some of them have Concertina pages that pull out to this massive procession of bears and birds which I love. I want to make a print about a musical procession at some point.
How do you start a piece of work? What’s the first piece of inspiration or the starting point – is it the characters, or the colours?
Ooh, it really is a mix of both! I usually have a few ideas of things I want to do in my mind – like the procession idea I just mentioned. I’ll start with a drawing, just a rough drawing. And then I scan that in and get it to be the right size that I want it to be. Then I print it out, trace it and draw it out again with carbon paper underneath and use the carbon paper drawing as my actual drawing.
And what’s the significance of using the carbon paper?
It’s a bit like a monoprint. I really like the line quality that you get, it’s a little bit fuzzy. Once I’ve done all the carbon line, I get the original pencil drawings that I’ve drawn on top of and colour in the different bit that need colour. I scan everything into the computer, including coloured–in shapes, because I want everything to be as hand made as possible. I don't like to use photoshop to make the colour layers – even though it would be much quicker!
I also try to use carbon paper that I’ve already drawn on, so you get little bits of previous designs coming through in the colour. There are certain areas that I don’t use carbon paper for, so it’s about contrasting the textures. I then make the composition using Photoshop, which is one of my favourite parts of the process. At this point I also try and work out how many colours there will be and separate them into layers. These layers become the stencils I use in screenprinting.
So there are two stages of your process, the illustration and then the physical printing of each layer. Does one take longer than the other?
The drawing always takes the longest, I don’t know if people always realise that. Also, because I tend to make prints that are made up of lots of smaller elements that come together to create the whole, it’s so much drawing! And then there’s even more drawing because I do really enjoy adding in tiny details – so there’s always something new to discover in the finished print.
You mentioned the composition is one of your favourite parts of your process. Could you tell us a little bit more about this?
I often draw collections of things, so this is where I get to create mini narratives within the print. A good example of this is when I was working on my Paprika Tins ‘Hot Stuff’ screenprint. The initial idea came because my friend Gill collects them, when I saw them all lined up in her kitchen, I thought they were interesting. They’ve all got these slightly bonkers characters on them, like weird half men/half bull warriors or Diana the Roman goddess of hunting striding along with her dog – I mean what have they got to do with spicy dried pepper?
I don’t know but I love the drama of it all! It gives me the chance to think about who I’m going to put next to who. Suddenly you’ve got a moustachioed man holding a plate of fish next to a young Hungarian girl collecting her paprika, and I think to myself, ‘What are they saying to each other?’ or ‘What does that Spanish squirrel think about being alongside an angry looking eagle?’... I could go on because basically that’s what it’s all about for me.
Do you ever think of yourself as a storyteller in that way?
I’ve only recently started to use that term to describe myself. All these things are definitely in my mind when I create my images. I’m not sure other people realise but I’ve always enjoyed the thought that there’s more to my work than first meets the eye, so hopefully after it’s been in their lives long enough, they might start to notice.
I think they totally do, it’s brilliant and people do get it, particularly with the larger pieces which draw you in with the level of detail. You can’t help but look around and see how all the different characters around each other are interacting!
Great! Because I’m really thinking about what’s next to each other. It’s trying to explain that when you do an artist statement that’s so hard – without sounding insane!
Collections of things often appear as part of your compositions. When did your love of collections start, have you always collected things?
I don’t collect things myself, I really don’t have enough room in my flat... But I have friends who collect (I’m thinking about Gill here, she’s got a great eye for picking up vintage ‘stuff’) and my Dad collects matchbooks. I did really want to make a print of his matchbooks, but they’re all of wine bars in the eighties so I’m not sure, so I think it will just be a starting point.
The collections I like aren’t always conventional ones – they could be tropical birds or jungle animals, sounds or circus performers – the procession of musicians and dancers that I’ve had in mind for a while now.
Having said that I do like travel souvenirs such as snow globes (they’re perfect little miniature worlds) and also stamps (to me they’re mini works of art and they also can feel exotic as they’re from all over the world and so spark memories of travel just like the snow globes), Staffordshire pottery figures – the Victoria Museum in Bath has a shelf full of pottery dogs, I love the expressions on their faces – fertile territory for me! I also went to the Museum of Packaging in Ladbroke Grove last year so currently I’m really into vintage packaging, especially tins.
Looking at that list makes me realise there’s definitely an aspect of nostalgia and memory in my work. That’s something I notice when I see how people react to my work.
"You’ve got to think about how you are communicating with the person that’s viewing the work, and the right title can help you control that a bit."
And what about the titles of your works? Can you tell us a little bit about them?
Sometimes the titles come first. I’ve got one I really want to call Cupboard Love, I’m don’t know why! That’s about all the tins and vintage packaging.
So each title also comes from things you’ve seen...
What really got me thinking a lot about titles was a seminar we had while I was doing my MA. It was just an informal afternoon chat, but it was about whether titles are important or not, and it really stuck with me. You’ve got to think about how you are communicating with the person that’s viewing the work, and the right title can help you control that a bit. We also discussed if it’s ok to use clichés or if they’re a bad idea and for me you’ve got to have a good cliché – you can get so much out of them.
I use titles try to add a bit of humour to my work, quite often they’re a bit of play on words (hence my love of clichés). I’m always disappointed if I can’t think of a good title, and I’m always a bit disappointed when other people just have ‘untitled’ work. Apologies to anyone who does that, but I think it’s such a wasted opportunity.
And with the characters, do you find the same characters cropping up in different prints and narratives?
I don’t always make them exactly the same, but there are lots of lions and bears. There is a bear firework box, and also King Kong! The title for that is ‘Something Inside So Strong (and Fiery) Mr Kong’... so actually that’s another way I think up my titles, they come from music!
The colours you use are so fantastic – the hot pinks, the gold and the contemporary blues. Is there a relationship between colours and characters? How do you choose your colour palettes, is it something intuitive?
Yeah, I think it’s instinct, in a way. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I realised how important colour was in my work, which seems bonkers when you look at it.
Before I always thought I was using sort of the right colours for the things I was drawing and I also felt like I was using the same colours all the time – a bit of pale grey and a bright pink – but then I realised that people were drawn to the colourfulness of my work and now I’ve started to think about it more and more.
Yes, because you never really use green, do you?
I never use green! That’s my thing.
What is it about green that you don’t like?
I just don’t like it, and I can’t get green to work with other colours. Once I printed about 20 bird stamps prints with about 7 or 8 different layers of colour... I made the turquoise colour quite green. I went home after the day in the studio feeling bit uncomfortable and on edge – then I realised it was because of the green-ness so I went back the next day and reprinted the whole thing from the beginning.
"I still get really excited about making prints... I’m trying to do smaller editions now, because I want things to feel more special."
It’s important to stick to those instincts, if you don’t like a colour or don’t think it works.
I do look on Pinterest at colours palette a bit more, and with my Matchbox prints I’ve tried to not print with any blue – as a sort of conscious decision. And because I was trying to make them more of a little series, when I did the third one, I suddenly thought I have to make them all work together and use the same colours, but without blue!
The last one I want to do is a crocodile. Obviously, he’s not going to green, but maybe he’ll have to be turquoise or he could be gold. That’s always the colour I use instead of brown... because I don’t love brown that much either!
How do you envision your future as a professional artist? What are your plans at the moment?
I still get really excited about making prints. I love screenprinting, despite all the things that can go wrong, so I don’t see my process changing any time soon.
I’m trying to do smaller editions now, because I want things to feel more special. I’m quite into making series of prints. If they’re not a drawing full of lots of things, then it’s got to be a little series – I guess that keeps the theme of collections alive as well.
I recently rediscovered a box of gilt-edge card that I had left over from making some wedding invitations. I’ve printed some more matchboxes on them, and I love how the luxury of the thick card with the gold edge makes them feel like precious little art objects. I’m really excited about this and definitely going to do more... I like the idea of a box set (maybe inspired by the Smithson Gallery Christmas Collector’s Box!)
I also had a conversation with someone on Instagram about heat reactive ink, which started because I’ve been using a lot of glow in the dark pigment on my firework boxes. Heat reactive ink could be a way forward or even just using bits of varnish here and there – they’re all ways of adding in detail that you really need to work hard to find.
Do you have a dream project? If money wasn’t a factor?
Maybe something that involved using real gold!
I’d also love to work with a museum, not sure which – maybe the packaging museum I mentioned – and make work about their specific collections, or travel to other countries to look at museums and/ or their vintage packaging. I think there’s a fire work museum in America somewhere, and vintage Japanese matchboxes have some really strange designs – it would be good to explore all of this more...!